Enter the Pavilion...

Pat Coogan talks to actor Stephen Au, the man behind the latest tribute to Hong Kong's number one son.

Stephen Au is a rarity: he's a man who puts his money where his mouth is. More cynical observers might say that's doubly rare, since he's an actor. Au, a well known face from ATV's soap operas, and films like Body Weapon and The Blood Rules is equally famous for his appreciation of legendary Kung Fu idol Bruce Lee. Au's no ordinary fan though: content to rewatch Lee's films and indulge in Internet chatroom gossip about the man. Rather, as Bruce might have had it, he's put his passion into action, on more than one occasion. In What Are You Gonna Do, Sai Fung? Au made a short experimental film, which deals with the eighteen-year-old Lee's (ported by Au) last twenty-four hours in Hong Kong, before embarking for a life in the States. The 'short' earned a run at the Cine Art House, a positive critical response, and is now available on VCD. Au hasn't rested on his laurels though, and has recently created a more concrete tribute to Lee in the form of Dragon Pavilion, which can be found in the space formerly occupied by the POV Bookshop next to the Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei.

"It's a memorial hall or exhibition hall" Stephen explains, "regarding the items of Bruce Lee. (With) information regarding Bruce, documentary tapes regarding Bruce - it's a place for Bruce Lee fans to think about his philosophy, his martial arts, his movies etc." But why open such a place (clearly not engineered to be a big money spinner) with your own hard-earned cash? "That's a very simple, but very serious question. Bruce's (career) just lasted four and a half movies that shocked the world (before his death aged 32 in 1973). Now they all started from Hong Kong. However, since Bruce left us twenty seven years ago some civilian organisations have announced that there should be some place, a memorial hall for Bruce, but we only hear this kind of information, this kind of news: nothing has happened. I think it's very important. I think it's a must to have a place for Bruce Lee in Hong Kong."

It's certainly true that neither the SAR Government, nor the Tourist Association have been pushing hard to set up some kind of permanent memorial to Lee (arguably the most recognisable Chinese face in the world, and definitely the best known Hong Konger in history). There's not even a plaque on any of the homes where he lived, or schools where he studied. The only tributes that do exist are those set up by both enterprising individuals and those too tired of the Government's inaction to honour Hong Kong's favourite son.

The summer of '98 saw the Rickshaw Club on Robinson Rd undergo a massive facelift and re-emerge as the Bruce Lee Café: a fun, Lee-themed eatery, and a point of pilgrimage for numerous Japanese Lee fans fit enough to brave the Mid Levels escalator (it's the descent after dinner and drinks which takes it's toll!). How does the Dragon Pavilion differ from the Café, though? Stephen is clearly not out to compete with, or knock the island-side tribute: "Bruce Lee Café is, I think, completely different. It's a place for leisure for people to take time to say 'Oh! Those are the pictures taken by (Café boss) Jon Benn and Bruce when they shot the film Way of the Dragon. Oh, that's the jumpsuit Bruce wore in Game of Death!' It's a place just like Planet Hollywood, but Dragon Pavilion is completely different." As an afterthought, Au smiles, "Unfortunately we haven't such a large place as Bruce Lee Café...".

Not only does the Pavilion display genuine Lee autographs, a jacket worn by the "Little Dragon" (with accompanying certificate of authenticity, signed by Lee's widow Linda), and a reproduction of his "Hollywood Walk of Fame" star, it also boasts an archive of Lee articles, press cuttings and photographs ("rare information about Bruce" as Au puts it) compiled with dedication by "Lee historians". The location won't just be for fans and passersby to have a quick look around, either: "Every month there are at least two talks regarding Bruce, his philosophy, his movies or his martial arts. (The speakers will be) historians, like Paul Lee, some writers, martial artists (Karate guys, Thai boxing guys), moviemakers. It's an open forum,open to the public."

In Hong Kong, Lee is (understandably) best remembered for his films and fighting prowess. Talk of "Lee's philosophy" is likely to raise eyebrows or prompt quizzical expressions from less knowledgeable local fans. In fact, Lee studied for a degree in philosophy at the University of Seattle and his attitude towards martial arts in particular, and life in general, was influenced in no small part by the wide-ranging library of spiritual and philosophical writings which he kept. "Actually Bruce was not only an actor, he was a great martial artist, he was a great philosopher", Au offers. "He combined all those ancient Chinese philosophies such as Lao Tze and Chong Tze (through) to modern western philosophy. He combined them together, into (what is know known as) 'Jeet Kune Do' (Way of the Intercepting First) in Cantonese. It seems that it's this side of Lee which interests Au most, at least it's a side to the martial arts movie icon that Au thinks Hong Kong has rarely seen, and to which he hopes the Dragon Pavilion will offer a few insights.

Let's not lose sight of the fact though, that Lee was a mixed blooded Chinese (his mother was half German), born in the States, raised in Hong Kong, educated in Catholic schools, trained in Chinese martial arts, who returned to the US where he would marry an American, where his exotic thinking and fighting would find favour at around the same time as the Beatles were indulging in Eastern mysticism. It's no surprise then, that with his proud-to-be-a-Chinese attitude and US citizenship (he would have fought in Vietnam if not for an undescended testicle) Bruce was open to a wide range of cultural and spiritual influences. There's as much Muhammad Ali in Lee's fighting style as there is classical Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Currently, in certain circles in America, Lee is being posthumously upheld as some kind of New Age guru - his jottings about life regarded as gospel truth. This saint-not-a-sinner image is not one that Au appears to endorse, preferring to remember that Lee was a flawed, complex individual with failings like any other mortal. "It's very important to remain human about it" Stephen remarks. As if there needed to be more evidence that Au means what he's saying, there's his portrayal of a clearly Lee-inspired character in the Showbiz Tycoon series, which recently ended its 60-episode run on ATV Home. In the series "Dragon" as he's referred to, is as willing to look out for his loyal stuntmen as he is willing to tangle horns with directors and studio heads when he doesn't get his way.

He's both a loving father and a man tempted by the charms of his female co-stars. It's a performance the actor might not have been able to make ring true, had he not played it so multi-dimensionally, in rather the same way that the audience most believes in Jason Scott-Lee's portrayal of Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story when he's shown frustrated, overworked and paranoid, arguing with his wife.

Scott-Lee (no relation) is quoted by writer Bey Logan in his book Hong Kong Action Cinema as being told by Bruce's late son Brandon prior to filming Dragon to "not be taken by this legend stuff (but to) perceive him as a man who had failures, passions, sorrows and all the conflicts of a human being." It's true that the forever young Lee (who would have turned sixty this November) having not been subjected to the ravages of time (unlike his hero Ali) is easily viewed in retrospect with rose tinted glasses. Stephen Au echoes Scott-Lee's sentiments, but adds, "He was just a human being, but when you compare (others) with Bruce, you'll find out how great he is."

-- from BC Magazine - August 2000 --